Last week the title of our post was Daniel’s Stone. Today we carry on with that same theme as Daniel’s Stone continues to Roll Forth here in the Kenema District in a big way. On Saturday in Kenema we had a joint baptism with IDA, Burma, Nyandeyama, Simbeck and Kpayama branches where 10 people were baptized. In addition, at the same time in Kailahun, there were another 5 who entered the waters of baptism. Counting the 7 last week in Tongo, that is a total of 22 new converts within 8 days who chose to change their lives by making an eternal covenant with Heavenly Father. We were hoping to have a picture from Kailahun of those that were baptized, but they continue to have internet issues there so I don’t have it yet.What a glorious and rewarding work this is as we see people that have decided to change their lives for the better by following the example set by the Savior Jesus Christ himself. Hurrah for Israel!
The reason this is so significant is because there is something different in Kenema. The feeling is palpable. We are moving towards becoming a stake at an ever increasing pace and the spirit of that movement can be felt by everyone. Branch Presidents are working a little harder to improve ministering, leadership, accountability and literacy. Members are bearing deeper and more powerful testimonies. Missionaries are working harder to find and teach new people while at the same time strengthening members and leaders through their own ministering efforts. Weekly full-time missionary district councils are light years ahead of anything I experienced on my mission.
The scripture that comes to mind is D&C 123:17 “Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” Our testimony is that we can see the arm of God being revealed here in the Kenema District of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as we pause and reflect on what is happening, we have the utmost assurance that we are watching a miracle unfold. It makes it easy for us to want to do all things that lie in our power. The Church in Kenema is like this flower, a picture taken by our friend Doug McMullin while here in Kenema and Bo teaching “Helping Babies Breathe”. Despite the hardships, the disease and the famine of prosperity, the church is squeezing through the hard surface and blooming!
What a week! It started slow and ended in a whirlwind. On Monday we met Daniel Kannesie at the Airfield apartment (there is no longer an airfield in Kenema) and showed him the work we wanted him to do to remodel the kitchen there. It is overdue to have something done so we are happy that President Clawson approved the work to get it up to “missionary standards”.
In the late morning, I spent some more time with Dennis Samai, the President of the IDA branch and the man who has taken over the Liahona distributions. We ended up spending about 3 hours together as we worked through a number of issues we ourselves created. It was especially good because now we understand the full capability of the program even better! We were able to reason out what had happened and then figure out a way to fix it and the great news is that what we did worked exactly as it should have. It was a wonderful education for both of us and increased our confidence that we understand how the program works.
In the afternoon the Moomey’s came to Kenema to make a couple of missionary health checks and so we took the opportunity to go to Food Masters for some dinner. We called ahead and then went after an hour had passed. We still waited an additional 30 minutes! The food was good and the company was better so the wait was well worth it. How we love spending time with the Moomey’s!
On Tuesday morning we were up early as we took the Zone Leaders to Bo to catch a van with the other missionaries to head to Freetown for the Mission Leadership Council meeting. We have really come to love and appreciate Elder Dube and Elder Roche for their discipleship, their humility, their leadership and their hard work. The rest of Tuesday and into Wednesday afternoon we worked on three things: 1) Missionary apartment checks (all needed improvement), 2) Completing the written instructions with screen shots for the SimpleCirc program (77 pages complete with FAQs!) and, 3) Pulling together a list of games that Young Single Adults can play at the end of their weekly family home evenings. LaDawn worked on the latter as I worked on the former. We did the inspections together.
Wednesday evening we paid a visit to Eku Scotland. It had been nearly 3 weeks since we had been able to get together with him so we were so appreciative of the opportunity. Eku gave us a rundown on his 10 day trip to Freetown to ensure that a container from Engineers Without Borders with solar panels, batteries and other materials could come through customs without being taxed since it was for a disabled organization. It is impressive to us that Eku, who needs the use of a wheelchair to get around, was able to drive himself and a friend to Freetown and then spend 10 days going back and forth between government offices to get all of the necessary clearances. His success is underpinned by his perseverance. We are so impressed with the “I can do anything” attitude. It is contagious!
After talking through his adventures in Freetown, we began by reading the first page in the missionary pamphlet titled “The Gospel of Jesus Christ“. This led us into a wonderful discussion about ordinances and covenants, their purpose in helping us to get on and stay on the covenant path so that we can return after this life to a loving Heavenly Father. We also talked about the specific saving ordinances of the gospel and how these ordinances and the associated covenants we make help us to become more like Christ, which in turn brings us greater joy. These concepts resonated loudly with him and the spirit during the discussion was powerful.
During our discussion with Eku, our good friend Kevin Ball texted me which caused me to take a picture of Eku (above) and send it to him. Kevin and I have spoken and exchanged texts about Eku, as Kevin, half a world away, has felt the same familiar bond with him that we have felt after reading his story. When I texted Eku’s picture to Kevin, he in turn texted his picture back to share with him. He then shared his testimony and invited Eku to join us through baptism. Eku was touched and asked me to send the picture to his email, which we did. It was a tender mercy to have that interchange while talking about such sacred things.
On Thursday we were able to get up early and go for a walk. It seems harder and harder to do this as more and more events fill our early mornings. As we got ready to go, I walked around the compound and picked up a handful of bottle caps. The kids outside the compound play something akin to field hockey. They use sticks to “shoot” these caps from one end of the “field” to the other. They often end up in our compound. I usually just give them back and the cycle starts over.
On our walk we came across these interesting looking sheep. They actually look more like dogs than lambs as they have a color pattern we have never seen before. We looked them up on the internet, but couldn’t find anything. We think we will call them “dog sheep”.
After our walk, we attended the Kenema South District council, led by Elder Armstrong who serves as the district leader. The Zone Leaders were also in attendance and we met outside at the Simbeck building. It was a beautiful morning.
Sister Senoane led a masterful discussion on the attributes of Christ. She first asked us which attribute of Christ we felt was our greatest strength. Next she asked which attribute we most desired to incorporate into our character. She then went around the circle and we discussed the attributes each of us were trying to develop and if someone had that as a strength, we learned what things they had done or were doing to develop the attribute. Not every attribute in development had a corresponding person with the strength, but a few did. It likely would have been even better with a larger group of people to draw from, but I for one learned much. It was interesting when it came to LaDawn and me that we both said “Charity” as the attribute we are seeking. We especially liked one comment: “Humility is not just doing the Lord’s will, but giving the glory back to God”.
On Friday I traveled to Tongo with the zone leaders. LaDawn stayed home and spent most of the day identifying and downloading primary videos from the ChurchofJesusChrist.org website. As the church moves further and further into digital delivery of media across the world, Sierra Leone and other African countries struggle to keep up. We have minimal internet capability at the buildings (hardly enough for the clerks to do their work) and the result is very little of the online content is accessible to members. Data is just too expensive relative to the incomes here. President Joseph Aruna of the Dauda Town Branch has asked if we could help them download the videos for Primary that go along with the weekly lessons. They recently received an LED flat panel TV and would now like to make use of it.
While downloading the videos LaDawn was also trying to do some laundry, but we had a failure with the high pressure pump water line. The process is the plumber comes and makes an assessment, he tells us how much materials will cost, we give him the money and then he goes and gets the materials and comes back and fixes it. After we know it is working we then pay him for the labor. That whole process meant no water for nearly 5 hours on Friday. Probably still better turnaround than what one would get in the USA!
While I am trying to travel less and less to Tongo, on Friday I drove because we needed to bring Rebecca and Grace Koroma back to Kenema so they could take a bus to Freetown to have some scans done on Grace’s neck.
Grace is now 18 months old and was born with two lumps on her neck. Doctors in the US who have seen pictures indicate it is some sort of lymphatic malformation with large cysts. The doctors believe there is a “high risk of life threatening complications in a rural setting, cranial nerve injury and/or permanent disfigurement.” Getting her to the US will be a huge challenge and will require the efforts of many to come up with sufficient funds. While doctors and nurses have all willingly volunteered their time to do this, the cost of the hospital is prohibitive. Without surgery this little girl may not live to adulthood and if she does will have a serious malformation creating a life of misery and solitude, not to mention increased pain whenever she catches a cold or contracts a virus that impacts these glands.
Before anything further can even be attempted or planned, we needed to find out exactly what the lumps are, and thus the need for the scans that can only be done in Freetown. We are grateful for doctors in the USA who have thus far done much to make this happen. Grace’s mother, Rebecca, was the first person baptized in Tongo. She is a lady of great faith and hope. I have mentioned this before, but in the early days of Tongo in a Sunday school-like class we were discussing tithing. Rebecca said, “If I know I should pay my tithing, even if I am not a member of the church, am I not robbing God?” It is a moment I will never forget.
After returning from Tongo, we immediately drove over to the Simbeck Branch where we met with the branch presidency and a member of the district presidency in order to begin the rollout of the “Come Follow Me Gospel Literacy” program in their branch.
While they had the class working earlier, it has since faded away as they awaited new materials. A full-blown rollout (different from the earlier rollout last year) requires a meeting with the branch presidency, a meeting with the entire branch council and then the actual “class” held the second hour on a Sunday. We showed the branch presidency the vision video (it is really well done) and then discussed the steps to the rollout and their role as priesthood leaders. The meeting took just over an hour and was productive and successful. We agreed to meet the next evening with the branch council at 5 pm to train them on how to facilitate a Come Follow Me Gospel Literacy Sunday school class.
On Saturday morning we arose at 4:30 am so we could go and get Rebecca and Grace and take them to the bus to travel to Freetown. They had stayed the night with Sister Kongoley. She is the wife of Solomon Kongoley who is the Group Leader in Tongo. While he has to work away from home (he works at the lab at the hospital), Sister Kongoley stays here in Kenema where she is finishing school. They live about as far away from our apartment as is possible here in Kenema, but we made it there by 5 am and by 5:15 am they were on the bus ready to go to Freetown. We had heard a lot of conflicting information about what time she should catch the bus and which one it should be, so we simply prayed for help to know. We were gratified to find an affordable ride (40,000 Le or $5) on a big bus at the right time that was not crammed full of people. A tender mercy for us and for Rebecca and Grace.
At 9:00 am we were at the Kpayama chapel where we met with the branch presidency. Sister Jean B. Bingham, the general Relief Society president will be coming to Kenema with her husband along with Melissa and Cason next week. Sister Bingham sees the importance of gospel literacy among the sisters of the church and wants to experience first hand what it takes to make it work. Kpayama is the next branch on the schedule so we were meeting with them for 30 minutes to make them aware of the needed meetings and the times.
We also shared with them the importance of visiting those who are less active who could really benefit from this program. They are an impressive group of men and fully understand what it is they need to do in order to be prepared. It is a delicate balance between making sure they are prepared vs. giving Sister Bingham a less than authentic experience. We hope we were able to help define that balance.
After that meeting we attended the baptism of the 10 people mentioned above. Not only was it a historic event for Kenema District, but all 10 baptisms were done perfectly the first time. Something we have never seen. As mentioned earlier, it was a glorious event to witness.
During the afternoon we prepared for the evening training of the Simbeck Branch Council by having copies made of the lesson sheet made as well as picking up some markers and tape. At 4 pm we went to fill the truck with diesel as well as fill up our gerry cans for the generator. It was looking like rain but it held off with the exception of a few sprinkles. At about 4:20 we received a call from the branch asking us if we were almost there. LaDawn answered and indicated we were getting fuel. The response was priceless. Because it looked like it was going to rain, they moved the meeting up to 4 pm. Only problem was nobody bothered to tell us! We had a good laugh. We still managed to arrive by 4:35 pm and we were able to start by 4:50. There were still a few who came after we started but it was good we began early as by the time we finished we needed a flashlight to clean up.
One of my favorite parts of rolling this program out is the training we do with the branch council as we walk them through this Gospel Literacy lesson. It is focused on teaching the gospel as the Savior taught. It provides an opportunity for all members of the church to make their own spirit driven commitment to study the gospel at home as a family. As we talk about experiences that the “learners” have had as they have pondered, studied or shared the gospel message, some marvelous testimonies are borne. It is amazing how a simple picture with three simple questions can be so powerful. 1) What do you see in the picture? 2) How do you think the people in the picture feel? and 3) Can you share an experience you have had where you studied and pondered the scriptures?
When we finished the training, LaDawn led a debrief on their experience. One of the questions she asked was “What was your favorite part of this training?”. Without exception, the overwhelming answer was the personal commitment they made to study the gospel more at home with their families. This surprised us as there had been some wonderful personal experiences that had been shared. However, as we reflected on it we realized that when they first drew a picture of what they would do and then wrote it down as a plan, they received a spiritual witness about what they needed to do to be better about learning and teaching the gospel. They had received personal revelation and it had touched their spirits. The only other answer that came out was how much they enjoyed being asked questions rather than being told what to do. This is what Teaching in the Savior’s Way is all about and it is at the heart of the Come Follow Me Gospel Literacy program.
On Sunday morning we arrived early at the Simbeck branch and were able to enjoy a wonderful sacrament meeting. The talks were focused on the parable of the talents, the Plan of Salvation and the importance of reading, studying and pondering the scriptures in our homes. Unfortunately we ended about 10 minutes late and this caused the Come Follow Me Gospel Literacy Sunday school to run about 10 minutes overtime as well.
When sacrament meeting first finished, it was absolute chaos trying to get families into circles. We had a couple of very large families and although we tried to break them into two groups, they resisted, wanting to stay together. It made the exercise a bit more difficult for the facilitator of those circles, but we have to say we were impressed how quickly we went from chaos to order.
As the spirit descended upon the circles and the facilitators and we could see that the learners were beginning to learn. We had four circles outside and 5 circles inside. It was wonderful to walk around and listen in on their discussions as they shared their own stories and testimonies and then watch as they drew pictures of their plans (the purpose of drawing is that everyone can draw something, even if they cannot read and write).
At the end of the discussions, we gathered back together into the chapel and heard testimonies from three of the learners and their experiences. Again, the key message in those testimonies was the importance of gathering as families and learning the gospel together. Mission accomplished!
After church, the 9 facilitators, LaDawn, me and Sister Brima (one of the teachers who previously taught Gospel Literacy) sat in as we reviewed the experience we had just had.
Here are just five of the comments we captured: 1) Learners WANT to learn. 2) Invitations are powerful. 3) Everyone has something to share. 4) Learners are willing to take on the responsibility to learn. 5) Fathers want to be able to teach their families at home. LaDawn did an amazing job of facilitating the session as we identified potential gospel literacy learners as being best suited for either a beginner OR intermediate level. We were surprised at the number of youth who are in junior high and high school but still struggle to read and write. The idea of having a youth Come Follow Me Gospel Literacy class is building steam!
By the time we finished we were completely soaked with sweat. For this last meeting we were in one of the back rooms (to have some privacy) and although there were windows that were open, there was nothing to draw the air through. We had the generator on for a part of the meeting so there were ceiling fans, but when it went off it got hot. And yet, we loved every minute of being together with this wonderful branch council. We loved their enthusiasm, commitment and desire to help members of their branch learn to read, write and teach the gospel in their homes. What a glorious day it was!
As soon as we returned to our apartment we ate a quick lunch and then I was off to Bo to take missionaries who were being transferred. On Sunday, we said goodbye to Elders Spaulding, Marava, Luaba and Hendricks. On Monday there were four more who left. These have amazing servants of the Lord here in Kenema and we will miss them dearly. I was supposed to drop the luggage at an empty former “couples” apartment called Njagboima Couples Apartment. The problem was that someone was living (unauthorized) in one of the back buildings and had locked the front gate to the compound from the inside. Music was playing from the back so either they couldn’t hear us knock on the metal door with a rock or they didn’t want to. In either case, I left the luggage at the Stake Center there and solicited help from the Moomey’s and the missionaries to get the bags to the apartment once the whole “unauthorized tenant” problem was solved. I also brought Elder Allen back from Bo as he will serve as one of the new Zone Leaders replacing Elder Roche who left the next day.
As soon as I returned back, we met Dassama at our apartment and drove with him over to his family to talk about his desire to serve a mission. His mother had gone to the village and the vehicle she was in broke down, so she was not there. However, his grandmother, sister and great aunt were there and his mother indicated that they should talk to us without her and she would honor their decision. The whole time we were there the clouds were gathering and several times I thought it would start to rain, but it held off and we were able to have a great discussion. Both his grandmother and his mother have had reservations about him serving. There are a number of reasons, none of which are important to mention here.
During the discussion (we spoke in English and Dass translated to Mende for his grandmother and great aunt) I asked them, “Since Dass has joined our church (six years ago) is he a better person or a worse person?” Immediately all three of them said he is so much better. That alone may have been the most important question of the evening. In the end, they all agreed that Dass should go and serve a mission. They had a lot of questions about safety, food, companionship, money, etc, but in the end we think we were able to satisfy their concerns. All three of these women are absolutely lovely people and all three have great faith in God. There was a wonderful spirit in attendance and it was obvious they wanted Dass to do what God wants him to do. We hope to meet his mother at some later point just to tell her how much we love and respect her son.
We have said this before but we are so grateful to be here in Sierra Leone working hand in hand with these wonderful people who are eager to learn, to progress and to obey. All they need are teachers and trainers. If anyone who is reading this blog is considering a full-time senior mission, we encourage you to take the next step. For us, this experience has been and continues to be life changing as we witness the hand of the Lord in ways we have never experienced before. The spirit is moving upon this people and traditions that have historically pulled people away from God are beginning to weaken. Despite the difficult life circumstances these people face every day, they remain resilient and enthusiastic about the gospel of Jesus Christ. We bear our testimonies that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. It is the avenue for experiencing the greatest amount of joy available during our earthly sojourn. How thankful we are for our blessings and the love of our family and friends back home.